New Pittsburgh VA Director Heralds Tech, Telemedicine & Expanded Access To Care

Aug 7, 2019

On today's program: The federal Mission Act brings expanded health care options to Pittsburgh-area veterans; scientists get their feet wet in Pennsylvania bogs; a new bill could strengthen protections for horses; and a Pittsburgh city manager who sold himself a house for $2,500 faces the consequences.

Donald Koenig previously served as the chief operating officer at Mercy Health in Youngstown, Ohio. He joined the Pittsburgh Office of Veterans Affairs in May.
Credit Courtesy of VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System

Director Donald Koenig embraces innovation at the Pittsburgh VA
(00:00 — 17:10) 

The Pittsburgh Office of Veterans Affairs welcomed its sixth director in five years this summer in former Navy Lieutenant Commander and experienced hospital chief Donald Koenig. He tells The Confluence's Megan Harris that despite a lengthy daily commute from Youngstown, Ohio, he’s loving the tasks and challenges so far.

“Anytime I get the least bit frustrated with “I’m not making the progress I want to on something,” I just go down to the lobby and sit down and talk to a veteran,” Koenig says. “The stories are incredible, and it immediately just re-centers you—'Yeah, this is why I’m here.'”

Launched on D-Day in June, the federal Mission Act expanded treatment options to include urgent care and other approved, non-VA providers. Koenig says it's an opportunity to win back those who haven't felt appreciated by the VA and start anew with others excited by advances in adaptive mobility, mental health care, mobile treatment in rural areas and telehealth video conferencing.

“We are all so honored to take care of (veterans). They really feel like they’ve come home, and they regularly tell us when they go to civilian facilities it’s just not quite the same,” he says. “So we are really working on the experience.”

Could Pennsylvania's bogs answer climate change questions?
(17:50 
— 24:32)

Pennsylvania is home to a number of peatlands, mostly located in the northeast and northwestern part of the state. The sites are made of mossy, partially decomposed plants and sometimes animal material.

Peats can be home to vulnerable bird, butterfly and plant populations, and studying soil samples from them can reveal years of environmental history. Scientists working with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy are wading deep into the muck of Pennsylvania’s peatlands ecosystems to learn more about how they’re affected by climate change. Kara Holsopple of The Allegheny Front spoke to researchers about what they can glean from the unique environments. 

A horse and rider demonstrate a natural gait at the 2014 Walk on Washington event in the Capitol to promote the PAST Act.
Credit Provided by Marty Irby / Animal Wellness Action

Soring ban heads for the U.S. Senate
(24:34 
— 32:22) 

Just approved in the U.S. House, the PAST Act aims to increase protections for horses by ending a practice known as “soring,” which uses sharp objects or caustic chemicals like kerosene or mustard oil to cause pain to the front feet and hooves of the animal in order to creat an exaggerated gait.

Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association, says soring has almost completely disappeared from Pennsylvania stables, but that's not the case nationwide. Although supported by both Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, Irby says the Senate battle is an uphill one, but mounting public pressure could pass the ban.

City manager faces a $5,000 fine for violating state ethics rules
(32:25 
— 38:50)

In 2014, Aaron Pickett was hired by the city of Pittsburgh to run its real estate division, and in 2017 he sold himself a house in Beechview for $2,500, signing documents as both the buyer and the seller of the property. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Rich Lord reports that now a state ethics commission is demanding Pickett pay a penalty for violating its ethics act

Lord says Pickett likely won't face any additional fines or punishment from the city, as he didn't technically break any Pittsburgh city rules. The house was assessed by Allegheny County at $102,600, and three other prospective buyers had filed applications to purchase it. One of those would-be buyers told the Post-Gazette that he would have paid as much as $40,000. 

90.5 WESA's Julia Zenkevich, Julia Maruca and Hannah Gaskill contributed to this program.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.